Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
CSNY 1974
(CD + DVD-V)

In order to facilitate a better understanding of the music featured in this box set, I'll proceed to give readers the bare bones of a cultural background, since I believe that - though it sounds very captivating, and quite accessible - nowadays this music could appear to be just as "alien" as any radio signal coming from hyperspace, given the time elapsed since Summer 1974. That my cultural sketch will also feature a few somewhat technical notions about instruments, vocals, and recording procedures should not be surprising, given the fact that it's music we are talking about.

It could be said that, at the time this music was performed on stage in front of oceanic crowds, the popularity of the quartet whose moniker derived from the surnames of its featured members had almost no rivals in the rock world. Who could have filled those giant-sized stadiums?, rivals in question being artists such as Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, and Elton John. The number of copies sold by first album Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969), and its follow-up, Déjà Vu, featuring Young (1970), made the group a serious contender to The Beatles' throne. The group's fame snowballed with the release of the double live album Four Way Street (1971), released after the de-facto split that appeared to nullify any chances for latecomers to catch the quartet live on stage: that their highly volatile personalities appeared to have a large part in the split - let's not forget those fights in the dressing rooms, as reported by Frank Zappa on his album Fillmore East, June 1971 - talked against any chances of the four ever getting together again.

The years '71-'73 saw solo albums by former members of the group high in the charts. Though nowadays it's only Harvest ('72), the hit album by Neil Young, that's talked about, a quick look at any encyclopedia will reveal the truth about those albums released by Stephen Stills - solo, then with the group Manassas - and by Crosby & Nash, all going Top 5. Had they decided to reassemble, the group would have been able to perform those songs that originally appeared on their solo albums (which - here I anticipate for the benefit of those who are always in a hurry - is exactly what happens in this box), besides making it possible for them to play those unreleased songs that one imagined to be in great quantity and of great quality.

The picture I just painted is a bit too neat, though, pushing the proverbial dust under the carpet when it comes to a very peculiar item: Is there such a thing as "too much popularity"? This is a topic that's practically invisible nowadays, when popularity is considered as something "neutral" that's arrived at by a simple process of addition. But in those days the popularity of the group entailed the "added value" of a "countercultural" dimension that was "in opposition", as witnessed by such famous songs as Ohio, Chicago, and Long Time Gone (later, Immigration Man and Prison Song), while songs such as Almost Cut My Hair and Teach Your Children ("You who are on the road/Must have a code that you can live by") showed how the "private" could be "political". Summer '74 also means The Watergate scandal, with US President Richard Nixon finally resigning (the photo appearing on pp. 56-7 of the richly illustrated book included in the box shows Graham Nash watching on TV Richard Nixon's final speech, on August, 8).

The topic concerning "too much popularity" and "what kind" of popularity can be said to be somewhat alien to rivals Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, and Elton John, with Zeppelin producing what was basically high-quality rock entertainment, the Stones having married that peculiar kind of ambiguity that had Pontius Pilate as its undisputed champion, with Elton inhabiting a "pop" style whose main ambition was to be entertaining. (It has to be said, though, that in the course of the world-famous interview by Robert Greenfield which appeared in Rolling Stone, when confronted with the issue "protest in music", which saw Greenfield mention Chicago by Graham Nash, Keith Richard appeared to be somewhat on the defensive.)

Was their embracing the fast buck implied by their acceptance of those ugly acoustics and the alienating relationship between musicians and audience which are an unavoidable consequence of playing such large spaces the signal that those (former) "champions of the counterculture" had chosen to sell their souls?

The issue is made more complex by a dimension that nowadays I believe to be quite obscure, and maybe impossible to understand, for the majority of readers: the cultural distinction between different types of drugs, particularly cocaine (the notion that in those days one's disliking an artist that in the cultural framework of the times sang a song such as Heroin could be motivated on purely musical ground doesn't hold much water). In passing, let's remember that Jim Morrison's beer paunch and slurred speech in his post-Waiting For The Sun days were a larger damaging factor when it came to the Doors' fortunes than those horns and strings featured on their album The Soft Parade, alcohol being at the time one's parents' drug of choice. (Readers could also ponder the attempt to "explain" Morrison's alcoholism with his Irish roots, and his being "a poet", something which supposedly made him naturally inclined to being an alcoholic.) Those who like to ponder this stuff are invited to consider the fact that musicians' use of cocaine gets progressively backdated with the passing of time.

This was not a minor matter at a time when songs were recorded bearing names such as Speed Kills, and when there was a quite detailed list of drugs that were regarded as being "culturally admissible". What's more, the high cost of such drugs as cocaine introduced an unpleasant class dimension in those "egalitarian" times, which - besides the obvious, and obviously quite feared, legal repercussions - made certain recreational activities something to be kept under wraps.

The CSNY 1974 tour as presented in the box is an "idealized" tale. It's also an answer to the question concerning what to do when one becomes a celebrity on such a giant scale. It's not an answer without any precedent inside the same framework (outside this framework there's the testimony offered by the classic Robert Greenfield volume which deals with the Rolling Stones 1972 tour of America which appeared about forty years ago with the titles STP - Stones Touring Party and A Journey Through America With The Rolling Stones), as shown by Neil Young's controversial solo tour after Harvest hit big, and the album he recorded on that tour, titled Time Fades Away (check the picture Young chose as the album cover). And though at the time Young's answer was regarded as "a commercial suicide", it has to be said that it was thanks to his decision - also to his blooming as a songwriter, and his cultivating a guitar playing style that could be defined as possessing a "cultivated naïveté" - that it was possible for him to leave his former band-mates behind.

(Hindsight is 20/20, of course: an accidental overdose, and looking back we'd see things quite differently today. Which in a way is what Young told Cameron Crowe in the course of his "comeback interview" which appeared in Rolling Stone in Summer '75, where Young talked about his being "back on track" while releasing an album such as Tonight's The Night. "Just keep one thing in mind" (...) "I may remember it all differently tomorrow."

There had been a kind of "false start", the previous year, when quite hopeful sessions failed to produce the desired new album, Human Highway (readers will find the album cover - a picture of the four musicians taken by Graham Nash - on p. 13 of the booklet). And since Young was quite aware of his companions' love for spontaneity - a trait that when displayed in front of 70.000 people could only mean "train-wreck" - he presented them with a nice surprise: a full-sized stage he had built in his ranch, and rehearsal lasting five-six hours a day, six days a week, the whole month of June, with full amplification, guest musicians, and so on (many fine pictures can be found in the booklet).

It goes without saying that I'm implicitly assuming this is music worth talking about. I really think that those who listen to "rock music with a strong songwriter's background" (and no, I don't know what it means, either, but this seems to me like a good tag to put on a nebulous field) will find a lot to like here. By implication, this could be assumed to mean that the rest is only "nostalgia". Quite funny, totally by chance, at the start of the year - when there was still no rumour about this box, let alone a release date - I got a "Happy New Year!" kind of message from a friend from New York, who also wrote:

"I have been thinking about CSN&Y for the first time in ages, after listening to Terry Gross's interview with Graham Nash on Fresh Air. (...) What really blew my mind was hearing that music again, which I hadn't listened to recently. The interview often returned to the topic of vocal harmony (...), and it made me really listen to those harmonies with new ears (after mainly listening to that music in high school). Anyway the music sounded great, I have to get it again when I have a moment, and listen again. Many memories of course, but also to listen with the ears of adulthood... always interesting."

Figures and chart positions aside, what (younger) readers have to keep in mind is the enormous influence by such albums as those released by the members of the quartet when it comes to the craft of playing guitar. It's impossible to overestimate the influence of the acoustic portion of the Four Way Street album, with those unreleased tracks and those "naked" versions of songs that had been previously listened to only in a group setting. And I think that - Crosby's "open tunings" aside - it's mainly those tracks by Stills which stand as a link between country-blues and (acoustic) raga-rock on one side and US rock as it was being formulated in those days on the other (I'm thinking about such tracks as Word Game and Black Queen, which are included in the box in previously unreleased versions). With great display of precision, all guitars played on the album are listed under each song title - it's good to think once again about the different timbres of Stills's Firebird and SG, also the way Young "palms" the vibrato bar (a massive, classic Bigsby) of his Les Paul (the eight tracks appearing on the DVD-V all feature great moments). Clear channel separation = lotsa fun.

(Funny to think of those times when it was not uncommon to read a review which stated "this is an album where guitar players will find a lot to like", which could also be seen as an easy way out when reviewers didn't really know what to say, but which made it clear that in those days the instrumental dimension of music was not out of place in a magazine "for everybody".)

CSN&Y 1974 Summer tour mostly stays in rock's collective memory thanks to the enormous amount of dollars it saw flying - besides, of course, the great quantity of cocaine being consumed all around. By necessity, bootlegs only tell a partial story, for the most part quite mediocre, voices being often out of tune, audiences losing their patience during the acoustic portion of the concert. For many reasons, the end of the tour saw the main characters eager to leave it all behind, the movie of their Wembley concert - the last date of the tour, featuring The Band, and Joni Mitchell and The L.A. Express as the opening acts - left gathering dust.

Which makes one wonder: Since when a mediocre tour can originate a marvelous box-set? A complex issue, which can be summarized thusly.

Ably assisted by sound engineer Stanley Tajima Johnston, Graham Nash and Joel Bernstein set to work on all concerts that had been recorded on multi-track. Those who lamented on the Web the absence of this or that legendary or impossibly rare song were confronted with the simple truth that not all concerts had been professionally recorded on multi-track. Having those versions as the starting point, "ideal" takes were created "flying in" sound bytes in the digital domain, so as to have notes or fragments that were "in tune and in time" take the place of others that were not. Hence, much terror on the Web about the possibility of having "Frankenstein" versions where all ills were magically "cured" thanks to Auto-Tune. Something which I don't think happened, even if some "repair" work can definitely be spotted here and there.

How much? Well, as they say, "it depends". Those who do other things while at the same time listening to music after a short while won't even remember what they're listening to. So, let's formulate a for instance. Have a look at the picture that's on the cover: originally in black & white, for reasons of "commercial appeal" it was colorized via computer. There are those who've seen the original. There are also those who argue that the position of the sun cannot match both the colour of the sky as it appears in the photo and the length, direction, and inclination of the shadows of the objects appearing on stage. Analogically, the same can be said for certain aspects of the audio program. Those who consider those kind of arguments as being "too analytical" can stop reading here, and buy the box, since all this would only amount to useless words.

There are different versions of the box: the one with three CDs and one DVD-V; the one with three "pure audio" (it means these are not video) Blu-ray discs and one DVD-V; and a "limited edition" of 1.000 copies with just about everything, plus six vinyl LPs. There's also a one-CD sampler, "just to have a taste of the material". (Funny to notice - consider that the 188 pp. volume, which in the "cheap" edition appears to be CD-size, appears as "very large scale" in the limited edition box - that the "luxury" edition box is made of real wood, so making the shipping costs go up to about $500, the cost of the item itself being $500.)

The version I listened to is the cheap one: three CDs and one DVD-V. In my opinion, the fact of having different sections being glued together can be clearly heard at times, but nothing too disrupting. The real differences I noticed were those that appear on some tracks of CD 2, which features the "acoustic" portion of the set. First thing, the track Guinevere sounds completely different - vocals, guitar, and ambience - from the other tracks in the box: there are people who swear that this particular track comes from a later concert by Crosby & Nash as a duo. In my opinion the same digital "opulence" when it comes to ambience (clearly a digital effect) can be clearly perceived in such songs as Time After Time, Prison Song, Myth Of Sisyphus, and the cover of The Beatles' Blackbird - but not in those songs whose main composer is Neil Young, which to me appears as something quite deliberate.

Various threads on the Web have highlighted the inclusion of five unreleased songs by Neil Young (in passing, this speaks in favour of the hypothesis which has CSN&Y as being nowadays just a little more than a footnote to Young's career, just like the fact that Young's slice of the material appearing in the box is quite larger than his colleagues'), but let's not get too exited: it's not for these songs that Young will be remembered, though Pushed It Over The End is a good track (but how could it be that none of those who acclaimed it as "a forgotten masterpiece" noticed the song's strong similarity to Young's song Fontainebleau?).

The main appeal of the box is to be found in the group versions of those songs originally released on solo albums. Great guitar work, at times really great. Vocals are good: Crosby is in fine form, Young sounds "just like the record", Nash sounds a bit strained, Stills is often a bit hoarse. On the plus side, nothing here sounds as played "on automatic pilot", and while I have to say that I consider the performances of some historic pieces as being less lively than those versions featured on Four Way Street, there's not much boredom to be found here (by the way, length of CDs 1 and 3 is about 1h., with CD 2 at about 1h. 20', the DVD-V at about 40'). Very good keyboard performances, the backing parts showing a versatility one was maybe not expecting.

A few words about the guest musicians. Coming off Manassas, Joe Lala is colourful on percussion, though he's kept a a bit low. Russ(el) Kunkel's drums are good, here he plays a Pearl with two floor toms and four rack-mounted toms. There are those who found his fills a bit too loud and same-y (they go right-left, audience perspective), but this is a stadium, right? Tim Drummond's bass sounds quite good, a Precision with heavy-gauge strings (flat-wounds?).

Opening track of CD 1 is the (once upon a time) quite famous Love The One You're With by Stills, with Gospel-sounding vocals, Young on Hammond. Then there's a good performance of the (once upon a time) highly celebrated Wooden Ships, sporting very good vocal parts, Stills quite good on electric, Young on Hammond. Then it's time for Immigration Man by Nash, with fine backing by Stills and Young on guitars.

As it's to be expected, Helpless by Young gets a fine reading. A Crosby song unreleased at the time, Carry Me is good. Johnny's Garden by Stills comes from the Manassas repertory, and is quite elegant. An unreleased song by Young, Traces sounds like an out-take from Harvest, featuring harmonica. Sporting a lively rhythm, Grave Concern by Nash comes off Wild Tales.

Things get really serious with a group version of On The Beach - the album was released in the middle of the tour - with two lead guitar, Stills's more bluesy lead acting as a fine complement to Young's tense catatonia. A fine electric version of Black Queen clearly shows Hendrix's influence on Stills. Closing track, an excellent version of Crosby's Almost Cut My Hair, with two lead guitars.

CD 2 features the "acoustic" set. Change Partners by Stills is a good opener, with a fine rhythm section. An excellent version of The Lee Shore by Crosby follows, a bit Latin-sounding, featuring the rhythm section again, Stills on electric. Young's Only Love Can Break Your Heart is very good, with fine vocals, Stills on piano.

There's a Nash moment, with a fine version of Our House - piano and fine vocals - and Fieldworker, a song unreleased at the time.

Crosby's Guinevere follows, then his song Time After Time, unreleased at the time. There's a very good performance of Prison Song by Nash, off Wild Tales (a song whose lyrics unfortunately sound as they could have been written today).

What a great surprise!, a duo performance of the fine Neil Young song Long May You Run, unreleased at the time; in a couple years it'll become the title-track of the only album recorded by the ephemeral Stills-Young Band.

A Young moment: Goodbye Dick is just a quick joke featuring the banjo-guitar, while Mellow My Mind will appear, of course, on Tonight's The Night. There's also a fine version of Old Man, Nash on background vocals.

Intricate arpeggios, Stills performs Word Game solo on guitar - from country-blues to acoustic raga - while Myth Of Sisyphus - a ballad, unreleased at the time - features him on piano. The Beatles' Blackbird gets a good reading by the group.

Love Art Blues by Young is another unreleased song, featuring the rhythm section, not bad. Another unreleased song by Young, Hawaiian Sunrise is pleasant and lively.

Two classics follow: Teach Your Children, good, featuring the rhythm section; and Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, which has to be here (only a fragment appeared on Four Way Street).

CD 3 opens with a fine version of Déjà Vu: guitar harmonics by Crosby, also on vocals, Stills on a bluesy lead. My Angel by Stills, unreleased at the time, is the only ho-hum track here, just a groove looking for a song. Pre-Road Downs by Nash is not too bad, but to me it sounds a bit "heavy".

Young's Don't Be Denied off Time Fades Away gets a very fine reading, quite clear-eyed. There's also a very good reading of Revolution Blues off On The Beach, Young on vocals, and two lead guitars.

Military Madness by Nash off his first solo album Songs For Beginners is good, just like Crosby's Long Time Gone, featuring Young on electric, Stills on keyboards.

Pushed It Over The End is another unreleased song by Young, here with fine backing by Crosby's twelve-string, with Nash on piano, and Stills on keyboards: a Wurlitzer electric piano, and a Hohner Clavinet played through a wha-wha pedal.

In closing, two classics: Chicago and Ohio. Both are good, but in my opinion they're quite less lively than those versions which appeared on Four Way Street.

The DVD-V is quite good, for reasons that I hope readers will explore on their own.

Only Love Can Break Your Heart is the classic, melancholic, song we all know and love, with fine vocals by the group and fine interpolations by Stills on piano. Almost Cut My Hair is tense, while Grave Concern is lively, with Young on piano almost mimicking Nash's style, and Stills in fine form on electric guitar (this is a better version of the one that appears on the CD, though on the second verse Nash's vocals appear to have been "flown-in"). Old Man is good, but not as good as the one from the Wembley concert (whose video can be found "out there"), maybe the fact of showing Young almost ready to "take off" made the group decide otherwise.

We're at Wembley now. Johnny's Garden is elegant, a magical moment while the sun sets. Then there's an excellent reading of Our House, with piano and excellent background vocals. At the end of the piece the crowd goes crazy, Nash starts crying - maybe the fact of having Joni Mitchell appear at the concert brought him back to those days. Nash tries to overcome his embarrassment, Crosby embraces him, then he celebrates this moment: "This is for you, Graham".

An excellent Déjà Vu follows, Crosby's harmonics on the twelve-string, Stills very good on the electric, Young quite surprising on piano playing jazz chords, while he appears to be thinking "bet you thought a cowboy like me didn't even know about those chords...".

Closing track is the unreleased Young song Pushed It Over The End. Here everybody looks like he's about to enter another dimension, Young deep in concentration as he narrates a song that's still quite new to him, Crosby on rhythm guitar, Stills on keyboards. After the song ends, Stills goes to Young, to tell him... (What a fantastic song you wrote? Sorry I had my keyboards coming wrong?)

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2014 | Aug. 18, 2014